Voting in an election that could end the Nicolas Sarkozy era began last night in the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and off the eastern coast of Canada.
To preserve his slender chances of saving his job, President Sarkozy, 57, must snatch first place among the 10 candidates running in the first round of the French presidential election today. Even if he does so, according to unwavering and unanimous opinion polls, Mr Sarkozy may well lose the second round in two weeks' time to the Socialist front-runner, François Hollande.
A first place for the nerveless, unexciting Mr Hollande when the votes are counted tonight would, Mr Sarkozy's camp admits, snuff out the President's remaining hopes of a second term. Final opinion polls on Friday showed the Socialist candidate edging ahead, or running level with Mr Sarkozy, in today's vote. They showed Mr Hollande, who is also 57, winning by up to 14 points in the two-candidate run-off on 6 May.
French elections are global. They take place in overseas departments and territories in four continents, as well as in "metropolitan" France. The presidential election began yesterday afternoon, UK time, on the tiny islands of St Pierre and Miquelon, south of Newfoundland (population 6,000), which are the last fragments of French Canada. By last night voting was also under way in the three French departments in the Caribbean and in departments and territories in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The consequences of the election could also be global. With the European economic crisis deepening, and another euro crisis threatening, the choices made by the French president in the next five years will have a direct impact on the well-being of Britain and other developed countries.
In an attempt to change the subject from economic crisis and his own unpopularity, President Sarkozy has mostly campaigned on hard-right issues such as immigration and the alleged "threat" from Islam to French identity. He promises rigorous budgetary discipline in France and the eurozone, but has performed a hand-brake turn in recent days to demand new rules to allow the European Central Bank (ECB) to flood struggling European economies with cash.
Mr Hollande, a pragmatic, managerial Socialist rather than an ideologue, also promises budgetary discipline. He is precise about tax increases (including a 75 per cent tax on marginal incomes over €1m). He is less precise about spending cuts.
The Socialist candidate also insists that he would overcome German opposition and authorise the ECB to "reflate" European economies by printing money and financing infrastructure programmes across the Continent.
Neither of the front-running candidates has managed to life a morose national mood. The perpetual French tendency to detest incumbents and distrust mainstream politicians has been compounded this year by high unemployment and a fall in the purchasing power of low- and middle-income voters.
Opinion pollsters forecast a low turnout of about 72 per cent, compared with 85 per cent in 2007 when both Mr Sarkozy and his Socialist rival at the time, Ségolène Royal, convinced voters that they were a fresh and different kind of French politician.
Low turnout could upset the arithmetic of the opinion polls, but it is unclear whether it will most extend to voters of the left or right. Much will also depend on last-minute migrations of voters.
A high vote for the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen (who is already credited by polls with her party's highest ever score of 17 per cent) would fatally deflate Mr Sarkozy's total. A high vote for the hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon could relegate Mr Hollande to second place.
Either way, the overall support for the five candidates of the left – about 46 per cent – is so high that pollsters see little chance of Mr Sarkozy overtaking Mr Hollande in the next fortnight.
A close first-round "victory" for Mr Sarkozy tonight would give him a psychological boost and might help him to mobilise the right and centre before 6 May. A first place for Mr Hollande would be a near-fatal electoral blow for the President.
How today's vote will work
The voters Just over 43 million people are eligible to vote. Polling stations in municipal buildings around the country will be open from 8am to 6pm. In some urban areas polls remain open until 8pm. French electoral law bans any publication of voting estimates before all polls close at 8pm. The idea is that those voting late should not be influenced by knowing the likely outcome.
The candidates There are 10 names on the first-round ballot paper. The incumbent President, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, is running to be re-elected for a second, and final, term. His main adversary is the Socialist François Hollande, who polls show is in the lead. Hollande hopes to become France's first Socialist president in 17 years.
Polling at third and fourth are, respectively, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, and leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Front.